To the undiscerning eye, the test orchard at the Buncombe County Sports Park in Candler doesn’t look like much. Just several rows of mounds and sparse, scraggly bushes and trees haphazardly lining the exposed, grassy landscape.
“The conditions here are so far from ideal for an orchard,” concedes Eric Bradford, volunteer and clean communities coordinator at Asheville GreenWorks. But surprisingly, he continues, plants like the shade-loving pawpaw, which ought to have died off, have thrived, while hearty species like the beech plum that were expected to do well have struggled. “We’re all supposed tree experts, and we have no idea what they’re doing,” says Bradford.
The test plot is part of the nonprofit organization’s Food Tree Project, an ambitious 20-year program developed in concert with the city of Asheville, Buncombe County and the Buncombe Fruit and Nut Club. Launched last year, the program has established four orchards so far, including the test plot; 18 more are planned. The project targets neighborhoods that lack access to fresh, healthy food; and already, these budding community assets are nourishing residents of the Shiloh community, the Asheville Terrace Apartments and the Pisgah View Apartments, where the orchard enhances the existing Peace Garden.
To foster a sense of ownership and community involvement, GreenWorks partners with residents, who decide what they want to plant and help care for the orchards.
The test orchard was created to determine which species would survive and produce under less-than-ideal conditions. The results will guide the planting going forward: pawpaws, blueberries, blackberries and mulberries, among other winners.
Most of the plants were either donated by local nurseries, such as Southeastern Native and Carolina Native, or purchased locally with grant funds.
“Asheville GreenWorks received a community recreation grant from the Parks and Recreation Department in the spring of 2013,” explains Lynn Pegg of Buncombe County Parks and Recreation. Her agency, she continues, “provided the land for the orchard and has left the upkeep to Asheville GreenWorks and the Fruit and Nut Club.”
As for the aesthetics, “It’s hard to have some type of public appreciation of a wild space,” says one Fruit and Nut Club member who declined to give his name. “People are so used to perennials and lawns that are manicured; they don’t understand or appreciate it. You gotta wait five to 10 years for it to grow.”
Bradford, too, counsels patience, saying, “It doesn’t look like much now, but someday people will be throwing a football around the Sports Park and be able to wander down and pick an apple.”
Sand Hill-Venable Elementary School is a stone’s throw from the test orchard, within walking distance for the students there. Children at Sand Hill will participate in cultivating the edibles, from the planting and trimming to constructing signs identifying the orchard and its resident species.
GreenWorks and its affiliates maintain a strong presence in Buncombe County schools, promoting conservation practices. Thanks to the organization’s efforts, these students sort their lunchroom waste, keeping recyclables and compostable material out of the landfill. And in another collaboration, each classroom at Asheville’s Ira B. Jones Elementary nurtured a fruit-bearing tree.
Candler resident Jillian Isele, whose son attends Sand Hill Elementary, is thrilled about what the test orchard might mean for him and her two younger sons. She’s signed up with GreenWorks to help maintain the plot, and she looks forward to bringing the boys there to play in the field and pitch in when possible. “It’s important to teach our children to take our food back. This is invaluable,” Isele says.
Bradford, meanwhile, is quick to dispel any notion that having an orchard entails too much effort. “This is the laziest form or gardening: You put in a little work upfront and a little bit of trimming,” he explains. “We want people to see how easy it is and then go home and plant in their own backyards.”
Isele, too, hopes her volunteer experience will prove educational. “I want to learn about gardening,” she says, adding that the family of five will most certainly be partaking of the fruits of their labors.
GreenWorks, too, hopes the orchards will educate a new generation about growing their own food. And in an interesting twist of fate, Bradford once attended an elementary school that was located exactly where the test orchard is now — and he remembers the organization he works for today, then known as Quality Forward, coming to his school. Talk about influencing a child’s life: Today, he and others in the edible plant community are inspired to pass the torch.